MARIE JAËLL (Alsace 1846-Paris 1925): Cello Concerto, Piano Concertos 1 and 2, La Légende des ours (song cycle with orchestra), Piano Pieces (2-hands and 4-hands)
Chantal Santon-Jeffery, soprano; Xavier Phillips, violoncello; David Bismuth, Lidija & Sanja Bizjak (four-hands), Dana Ciocarlie, Romain Descharmes, Nicolas Stavy, and David Violi, piano.; Orchestre National de Lille, cond. Joseph Swensen; Brussels Philharmonic, cond. Hervé Niquet
Lovers of nineteenth-century music will want to know about the remarkable work of the Centre de Musique Romantique Française. The Center, founded in 2009, is run primarily by scholars from France but is located in Venice, at the Palazzetto Bru Zane. It engages in research—and provides financial support—for concerts, opera performances, print publications, and numerous recordings. Many of these recordings are multiple-CD sets that come with a small hardbound book containing—in French and English—informative essays and sung texts and translations. The Center organizes these CD/book combinations into three categories: “French Opera” (11 releases so far), “[Composer] Portraits” (3 releases), and “Prix de Rome” (6 releases—compositions written by student composers at the Paris Conservatoire, such as the young Debussy). All the CD/books are produced and published by the Center itself, but Amazon.com and other record distributors tend to refer to them, instead, by the name of the firm that manufactures the book: Ediciones Singulares (El Escorial, Spain).
Whereas the Center’s “French Opera” category has received a lot of attention (see my review of Felicien David’s Herculanum on Opera Today)1, the other two series have gone relatively unnoticed. I was therefore delighted to be given the chance to write about the latest release in the “Portraits” category. (The previous two were devoted to Théodore Dubois and to Théodore Gouvy.) The present release consists of piano-solo works and works with orchestra by Marie Jaëll (1846-1925), a renowned pianist and pedagogue, who was also a close professional associate of Franz Liszt during his later decades. Jaëll gave concerts in Paris consisting of all the major piano works of Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt. Echoes of those composers’ approaches are heard in the ten works heard here, as are other possible influences (e.g., some pastoral patches that recall Dvořák, and a sweet bit that resembles something in the Grieg Piano Concerto). But Jaëll is no mere imitator: these works show her to have been a composer with a truly individual profile and approach.
The ten works on these 3 CDs are divvied up among no fewer than seven pianists, two orchestras, a cellist, and a soprano. Aside from the solo-piano works, nothing on these CDs has been recorded previously. The scores and parts for the works with orchestra were prepared by Sébastien Troester (author of one of the essays in the book).
Of the ten works, several struck me as major revelations, not least the Douze valses et finale for piano four-hands (i.e., two pianists seated at one instrument). Liszt and Saint-Saëns played the set at Weimar in 1876, and Liszt wrote to Jaëll to express his “sincere praise for this charming jewel.” It is hard to imagine that even those two great masters of the keyboard performed with more nuance, humor, and loving care than do the two pianists here. The Bizjak sisters, from Serbia, attain admirable clarity, thanks in part to a light-toned 1902 Érard piano.
No less impressive in this 3-CD composer-portrait are two cycles of twelve pieces each for piano solo: Les jours pluvieux (Rainy Days) and Les beaux jours. They seem like jottings in a composer’s notebook: each piece is around a minute or two long. Yet the textures and harmonies are so varied and inventive, and each piece is so coherently woven into a neat little package, that I found myself following the flow of musical thought with close attention. Indeed, I listened to some of the pieces a second or third time, just to see how Jaëll managed things so expertly and to think about the relationship between the notes of a piece and its descriptive title ( e.g., “The Shepherd and the Echo” and “Brushfire,” both from the fair-weather set). Dana Ciocarlie is fully adequate in the joyous and peaceable set, Nicolas Stavy a good bit more than that in the stormy, moody one. Some of the pieces could, I think, be playable by an intermediate-level student. Piano teachers, take notice!
My favorite of all the solo-piano works here are two selections each from three collections that—presumably inspired by Dante—bear the titles Ce qu’on entend dans l’Enfer/le Purgatoire/le Paradis (What Is Heard in Hell/Purgatory/Paradise). In many of the works already mentioned, Jaëll manipulates short rhythmic motives playfully, intensely, even obsessively. Here she makes frequent use of the first four notes of the Dies irae chant (a melody known to music lovers from, among other things, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and Liszt’s Totentanz). Pianist David Bismuth makes these six pieces from Ce qu’on entend… sound like masterpieces. At the very least, one or another could add great novelty and interest to any piano recital. As in the two “weather” sets, each piece in these three sets carries its own intriguing semi-programmatic title. One of the Purgatory pieces is entitled “Maintenant et Jadis,” i.e., “Now and Formerly.” Its music alternates between what one might—in light of the title—read as a dead person’s existential terror (“now” meaning “in Purgatory”) and his/her memories of the life—full of striving and some pleasure—that s/he led (“formerly”) on Earth.
Less interesting, I thought, were the two Piano Concertos, which Jaëll herself played during her lifetime but were never taken up by other pianists. (These very recordings of both the First Concerto and the Second are available on YouTube—whether legally or not.) I noticed, as so often with Jaëll, some arresting moments but, overall, found the material less memorable than in the works for piano alone. Also, though soloists Romain Descharmes (in no. 1) and David Violi (in no. 2) fully meet the works’ virtuosic demands, the microphones seem too distant from the Lille orchestra (under Joseph Swensen, once better known as a violin virtuoso). A more vivid, detailed sonic quality might have helped convey the changing nature of the interaction—in both works—between soloist and orchestra.
By contrast, Jaëll’s Cello Concerto seems like a major discovery: the material is attractive and well-defined, the forms of the three movements satisfying and clear. Given the paucity of first-rate cello concertos, I can easily imagine this one making the rounds of the concert halls, I hope in performances as committed and accomplished as the one here by cellist Xavier Phillips. The Brussels Philharmonic, as conducted by Hervé Niquet, sounds wonderfully vivid.
The only work with voice on these CDs is a startling six-song cycle with orchestra, entitled La légende des ours (The Legend of the Bears). The six poems, by Jaëll herself, are strange indeed. A male bear falls in love with a maiden, and she is smitten with him and his dark hair. She perhaps becomes a bear herself (at one point she is called an oursonne, “she-bear”) and lives and quarrels with the handsome brawler. (Hmmm, is he perhaps a hunky, lumbering human—and thus a bear only in the maiden’s eyes?) The young woman—or female bear—dies, “a victim of her love.” The male, now grief-stricken, expires soon after.
Jaëll has been described as a skilled songwriter. The “Bears” cycle provides good evidence for this. Though the orchestra has much clomping, growling, and lyrical emoting to do, the heaviest such orchestral writing occurs in between the vocal entries. The melodic lines for the singer are well-shaped and sometimes sound a bit like folksong, reflecting the imaginative, ballad-like tale being spun for us. Santon-Jeffery commands a fine sense of legato but at times reveals a bit of wobble. The orchestral accompaniment (Brussels/Niquet again) is gratifyingly varied, reflecting the changing images of the sung text. I hope that this “Bears” cycle, too, finds a place in our concert halls—either in French (as here) or with the German text that Jaëll herself prepared and that she entitled Baerenlieder.
A sample of recorded excerpts from this fascinating 3-CD set can be heard (and seen, in rehearsal) at http://www.bru-zane.com/?pubblicazioni=musique-symphonique-musique-pour-piano&lang=fr&lang=en. The third song from the Bears cycle can be heard on that same webpage. Some of the written material and photos found in the book that comes with the 3 CDs can be consulted online at http://www.bru-zane.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/MARIE-JAËLL-Portrait-vol.-3-press-release-EN.pdf.
The translations in the book, it should be added, are largely reliable, notably those by Sue Rose. Those by Mark Wiggins occasionally stumble, especially in excerpts from previously unavailable nineteenth-century sources, such as manuscript letters. In one spot, Wiggins translates dernière (by which the writer clearly meant “most recent”) as “lesser.” In a quotation from a letter that Jaëll wrote in 1880, Wiggins has her say, “the artistic benefit that I gained in Germany used to provide me with too much mental anguish” (my emphasis), whereas she is actually using the conditional tense: “the artistic benefit that I would find in Germany would bring me too much mental anguish.” She goes on to explain that this is why she is hesitant to travel to Germany to perform her works. Jaëll came from Alsace, a linguistically mixed region that had been annexed by Prussia—the central power in the recently consolidated German Empire—after the defeat of France in 1871. Her complex feelings as a highly cosmopolitan yet strongly French-identified musician can be pieced together from the well-documented essays in the book.
I should add that, if Marie Jaëll’s name sounds familiar, it is probably because of her fame as a piano pedagogue and as author of numerous treatises on piano technique. There are no fewer than three websites dedicated to her and to a version of her piano method that continues to be taught in many countries. The fullest lists that I have found of her compositions are at http://www.marie-Jaëll.info/oeuvre/ and http://www.marieJaëll-alsace.net/pdf/catalogue.pdf. A complete discography is at http://www.marieJaëll-alsace.net/disco.htm. (I notice 4 CDs on the Querstand label, containing the complete solo-piano pieces, played by Cora Irsen.) Scores for ten piano pieces, newly re-edited, can be downloaded for free at http://www.marieJaëll.asso.fr/v2/wordpress/decouvrir-et-partager/partitions/.
Liszt called Marie Jaëll a “brave, ambitious, and subtle composer.” The present 3-CD set helps us see why Liszt praised her so.
The present review originally appeared in American Record Guide and appears here, lightly revised, with that magazine’s kind permission.